House Votes to Ban Abortions After 20 Weeks of Pregnancy

The House of Representatives voted to ban abortions nationwide past 20 weeks of pregnancy, joining at least 10 states in seeking to expand prohibitions on the procedure further than the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed.

The bill, passed yesterday on a mostly party-line 228-196 vote, would make such abortions a crime with a possible prison sentence. At least 10 states have approved similar laws, with those in Arizona and Idaho declared unconstitutional by federal courts.

“These late-term abortions are incredibly, incredibly painful” for the fetus, Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said during floor debate. “The American public is with us on this.”

The Democratic-controlled Senate won’t take up the bill passed by the majority-Republican House.

“This bill is unconstitutional,” California Democrat Zoe Lofgren said on the House floor. “It’s a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade,” the 1973 decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide.

The court in 1992 reaffirmed that the government can’t ban abortions before the fetus is capable of living outside the womb, which is generally considered to begin at about 24 weeks. The Obama administration said it “strongly opposes” the House measure and the president would veto it.

Major medical groups, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, have disputed claims that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks.

Health-Care Law

The House measure is “intrusive and patently unconstitutional” and has been “blocked everywhere it has been challenged in court,” Nancy Northup, chief executive officer of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement after the vote.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, said, “Women and the unborn deserve better than abortion, and making late-term abortions illegal is a simple step in that direction.”

Six Republicans voted against the measure, including Paul Broun of Georgia, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, Richard Hanna of New York, Jon Runyan of New Jersey and Rob Woodall of Georgia.

Six Democrats voted for the measure. They are Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, Jim Matheson of Utah, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, Henry Cuellar of Texas and Nick Rahall of West Virginia.

Sending Messages

The House has taken a number of votes on legislation doomed to fail in the Senate, to send a message to voters and allow Republican lawmakers to go on the record on a particular topic. On May 16, the House voted for the 37th time to repeal or defund at least part of Obama’s 2010 health-care law.

Jean Schroedel, a politics professor at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, said House Republicans are seeking to “placate” their supporters on abortion, even as they recognize the measure won’t become law.

“What they are trying to do is give some red meat to their socially conservative base” with the abortion vote as Congress debates immigration legislation opposed by many Republicans, Schroedel said.

Republican-led states increasingly have restricted when and how women can end their pregnancies. At least 10 have enacted laws since 2010 banning abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. The Texas Senate dropped such a provision in a measure still pending in the chamber yesterday. It would impose other restrictions on the procedure.

Kermit Gosnell

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters that after the murder case of Philadelphia abortion provider Kermit Gosnell, “the vast majority of the American people believe in the substance of this bill.” Gosnell was convicted in May of killing three babies born alive at his clinic.

Only 1.5 percent of abortions in the U.S. in 2006 were performed after 20 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which researches and compiles reproductive health data in New York.

The House bill, H.R. 1797, would make it a crime, punishable by as many as five years in prison, to perform abortions on patients beyond the 20th week of pregnancy.

It was revised by the Republican majority to add exceptions for cases of rape or incest after the bill’s sponsor, Representative Trent Franks of Arizona, drew criticism for saying the number of pregnancies caused by rape was “very low.” Leaders also replaced Franks with Blackburn to manage the floor debate.

Medical Evidence

Franks’s bill says there is “substantial medical evidence” that a fetus can feel pain “at least by 20 weeks after fertilization, if not earlier.”

The vote is opening Republican congressional leaders, most of whom are men, to fresh criticism from Democrats that they disrespect women. The issue cost Republicans votes in the 2012 election after statements like losing Senate candidate Todd Akin’s remark that pregnancy rarely results from “legitimate rape.”

Obama won 11 percentage points more support from women than Republican Mitt Romney, according to exit polls in the November 2012 election.

“Women should be able to make their own choices about their bodies and their health care, and government should not inject itself into decisions best made between a woman and her doctor,” the Obama administration said in a statement.

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